Do They Owe Us a Living?
By Nick Pinkerton

Dir. Joel Potrykus, U.S., Oscilloscope

Marty Jackitansky, the protagonist of Joel Potrykus’s Buzzard, is supremely confident of two things: that he should never want for anything, and that he shouldn’t be expected to give anything in return.

Marty is a Black Metal aficionado with a white-collar job. He always has an angle, or likes to think he does, though his scams are strictly of the penny ante variety. He supplements the $9.50/hour he earns “working” in the mortgage department of First National bank by ordering expensive supplies on his company’s dime, then taking them to the returns department at a nearby office supply store. After making himself a microwave pizza sandwich for his solitary birthday meal, he calls in for a rebate the next day. As Buzzard opens, Marty is in the process of closing his checking account with a clerk at another First National branch. Having finished this and collected his money, Marty, without skipping a beat, asks to open a new account, so to take advantage of a $50.00 incentive for new customers. “You’re just trying to cheat the system?” the bank flack asks him. “Absolutely,” he replies.

When Marty’s little schemes come off, he treats it as his due—asked if his name is Polish by the bank flack, Marty replies “White Russian,” and you get a sense that he likes the air of deposed royalty it gives him, something to set him above the common run of muzhiks. When anything doesn’t go Marty’s way, he explodes into a tantrum of hysterics. He is, in short, a smug monster of entitlement—as the title
implies, a carrion feeder, battening himself from the labor of others while shirking all responsibility.

The part is played by Joshua Burge, who is appearing in his third film for Potrykus, and who was recently cast in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s forthcoming Western The Revenant. It’s no mystery why Burge was called up to the big leagues, for he photographs strikingly, slender with a monumental head and angular features which suggest a miniature Carradine. There is ample opportunity to study Burge’s face in the film’s opening close-up: a heavy, drooping mouth as red as wax lips; a blade-like schnozzola; large, protuberant eyes under half-shuttered lids, behind them an impenetrable front of bland, brazen contempt.

Potrykus and Burge’s previous collaborations are Ape (2012) and the short Coyote (2010), which, along with Buzzard, have been grouped together as the “Animal Trilogy.” (Potrykus’s imdb entry lists credits going back as far as 1999—some apparently juvenilia—but these are the only ones I have seen.) Aside from their bestiary titles, these films share certain attributes. They are all character studies of antisocial loners. In the Super-8 Coyote, Burge plays a junkie squatter prone to lycanthropic attacks. In Ape, he’s a woefully unfunny standup comic whose vices are pyromania and vandalism—as with any film about an incompetent comedian, Ape reckons with the legacy of Martin Scorsese’s 1983 anti-entertainment manifesto The King of Comedy, which casts a long shadow over American independents that take the prickly rather than quirky route, including Dustin Guy Defa’s 2012 Bad Fever and, reportedly, Rick Alverson’s 2015 Entertainment. Buzzard also owes something to Scorsese’s studies in male isolation, recalled as Marty feeds his mother Bickle-esque lies about his fulfilling personal life over the phone. To the list of influences we must also add Trent Harris’s The Beaver Kid, a 1979 documentary short about a cross-dressing Olivia Newton-John performer living in small-town Utah, a snippet of which is heard on the TV in each of the films.

The Beaver Kid would become the cornerstone of Harris’s own Beaver Trilogy, rounded out by two retellings and refinements of the same raw narrative material, though Buzzard is more explicitly concerned with another franchise. Marty, who owns a treasure trove of horror memorabilia, uses a Nintendo Power Glove and some kitchen knives to design himself a Freddy Krueger glove. This is in keeping with Potrykus’s tongue-in-cheek use of horror film iconography: Coyote ends with Burge howling at the moon, while in Ape, his character is harassed by “monsters” in chintzy Halloween store suits—a King Kong and a wolf man promoting a sale at a used car lot, or a Satan with a plastic pitchfork at a roadside fruit stand.

In the 3D Fangoria spread that Marty calls home, there’s nothing that could be dated past the Clinton administration, and were it not for the references to e-mail and CSI: Miami, there would be very little to place Buzzard in the 21st century. The Animal films, though not identified as such, often seem like period pieces set twenty or more years ago. In Ape, Sly Stallone impressions are still hot currency at the comedy club, while Burge’s character listens to music on a Walkman and goes to the arcade to play Joust. In Buzzard, Marty and his “work friend” Derek (played by Potrykus himself) play 8-Bit Nintendo and Sega Genesis in Derek’s rumpus room “party zone”—that is, when they’re not improvising an analog version of Asteroids involving a treadmill and Bugles snack chips, one of a few evidences of Potrykus’s knack for designing sight gags. (Presumably this will be a stage in Buzzard: The Video Game, which I received a PR e-mail about recently, informing me that an “Indie game developer” was launching a Kickstarter campaign with the intention of raising $30,000 to create it.)

On one hand, the pop culture detritus that Potrykus highlights, flagrantly out-of-date and therefore timeless, might be read as a commentary on built-in obsolescence—next year’s models are just more of the same shit, so why bother changing your references? The fetishization of vintage technologies also points to something else. It’s invariably symptomatic of a certain degree of financial security, while the truly poor gravitate toward the new. (There is a fine short story by Muriel Spark, “You Should Have Seen the Mess,” which illustrates this point.) While the characters played by Burge in both Ape and Buzzard live rather austere hand-to-mouth existences, there is little sense that they are acquainted with destitution in its truest sense. Seeming instead to have chosen their marginalization, they are emblematic of what, in more prosperous times, was once tagged as “slackerdom.” The scenes of Marty and Derek horsing around, tossing “gaywads” back and forth though never evincing any interest in women or sex, inhaling a steady diet of Cool Ranch Doritos, Mountain Dew, and Hot Pockets, bring to mind Beavis & Butthead or the Kevin Smith View Askew-niverse—Marty’s refrain of “I’m a temp” his version of the whinging “I’m not even supposed to be here today” from Clerks.

If this were all that Potrykus had up his sleeve, I’d say best not to do it at all—indeed, these hangout scenes play like deadpan mockery of this sort of material, pushed to the point where it’s as grating as possible, though maybe this is wishful thinking. Luckily, he’s up to something else as well. In Ape, that something else appears in a scene where Marty barges in on a violent domestic dispute between two neighbors, a sudden collision between two very different categories of fringe living. It’s a clumsily worked out scene which seems to have taken the director off guard; I don’t think it “plays,” and I’m not sure if Potrykus thinks it does either, and he effectively reworks the rough draft of this rude awakening moment into Buzzard’s entire third act.

Each of Potrykus’s “Animal” films deal with a coming undone, a mental unraveling accompanied by physical transformation, and in Buzzard this also involves an extended exposure to actual, honest-to-God poverty. In Ape, the Burge character acquires a wound on his side, something like Christ’s spear-jab, which begins to sprout a fruit-bearing branch, while Marty, building his Freddie glove, accidentally gives himself a stigmata gash on the palm—do I detect the hang-ups of a Catholic upbringing here?—which he tries to pass off as a workplace accident so he doesn’t have to pay for treatment. Shortly thereafter, Marty, afraid he’s actually gotten himself in legal trouble with one of his more dunderheaded schemes, will go on the lam, taking a bus into downtown Detroit.

Up until this point Marty has been a willful dropout from the middle-class, disdaining a chimp-aptitude cubicle job that many would kill for—but his ability to adopt that attitude is part of privilege, a privilege Marty only realizes his reliance on too late. When he becomes an actual outlaw, cut off from the world he knows, his supreme confidence disappears. He blows his ill-gotten gains on a night’s accommodation in the Renaissance Center and a plate of room service spaghetti and meatballs—lustily consumed in one of the long takes that Potrykus favors, letting the sauce plop on his bathrobe with full expectation that it will be taken care of—and soon after he downgrades to chili dogs and a $28-a-night flophouse. Penniless and unable to make his way back to the moneyed America, Marty discovers that being a Caucasian with a guileless demeanor isn’t enough to convince people to cash suspicious checks for him in a world where the cops get called at the first sign of irregularity. Marty no longer dominates the frame, as in his opening monologue, but struggles to play along with clerks at motels, hardware stores, and check-cashing joints, in scenes given the appearance of being surreptitiously shot. He isn’t even competent to tend to his wounded hand, and the cut becomes infected and putrefied.

Now, if this were one of the EC horror comics that Marty collects, such as Tales from the Crypt, this would be the build-up to his final, fatal ironic comeuppance. Without getting into details, I’ll say that he seems to get off scot-free instead, as most feckless brats in fact do. (I say “seems to” because we know something that Marty doesn’t—that he’s been caught on camera doing some quite fiendish things.) The last we see of Marty, he is taking something of a victory lap, flailingly sprinting down a Detroit street, fired up by an endorphin dump at hearing a piece of good news that effectively lets him off the hook, followed in a long traveling shot that some have identified as a homage to Leos Carax’s Mauvais sang.

We’ve played silent accomplice to Marty all along, but it’s difficult to succumb to joining his celebration of his reprieve, which I believe is part of Potrykus’s method—he’s not in hand-in-Freddy-glove collusion with his protagonist, but just a little too close for comfort. There’s zero indication that Marty will go home a changed man, and literally anyone else would be more deserving of the breaks he’s gotten—though of course “deserving” has very little to do with how things are parceled out in this world. The only philosophy behind Marty’s dissidence is self-preservation, and his highest aim is shirking. When backed into a corner, he blurts some half-baked righteousness about “corporate thievery,” but you don’t believe for a minute that he cares about anything but covering his own ass.

Nevertheless, Marty’s disdain confers a certain splendor upon him, aided by Burge’s curious charisma, and in spite or perhaps because of Potrykus’s apparent desire to force-feed his audience nerd vaudeville until they choke on it, Buzzard got under my skin. I don’t know anything about Potrykus’s background, but the film program of Grand Valley State University, where he studied, ain’t exactly Columbia, at least in terms of tuition and class distinction. Potrykus continues to work in Grand Rapids, Michigan, near his alma mater, which makes him a regional filmmaker, after a fashion—the nasal honk of the Great Lakes accent heard throughout Buzzard. For the first half of his film, however, the scene is set amid exurban sprawl that is much the same anywhere one goes in America, not to say the Western world. Potrykus has a way of distilling the familiar adolescent spirit of contempt for this environment—which is, after all, contemptible—and shows indications of being the rare filmmaker capable of stirring up ideas about class in America without resorting to the usual drab, po-faced miserablism. Having worked his way through punkish provocation, he shows signs of becoming a genuine shit-stirrer.